The original movie geek

January 20th, 2014 Film, M2 Magazine, Personalities

Drew Turney learns how an English kid who loved movies took his personal catalogue and became the go-to guy for the entertainment world at the click of a mouse.

Ask anyone – from a kid with a blog to a Hollywood reporter running one of the most popular movie news sites on the internet – and they’ll tell you they’re the world’s biggest movie geek.

They’ll rattle off a few very obscure Kurosawa or Fellini films, smile smugly and a little derisively when you tell them your favourite film is Ghostbusters or Jaws (and tell you some trivia from it they’re sure you don’t know), and namedrop some big star or heavy hitter they know or have worked with.

But no matter who you meet and what they say, the title of biggest online movie geek was claimed before the modern web was even invented, and a computer enthusiast from the rainy north of England holds it to this day.

“In terms of feeling connected to the films and plugging into the news it was very, very difficult back then,” says Col Needham, the original programmer, founder and now CEO of the biggest movie and TV resource in the world, The Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com).

Needham looks and sounds every bit a mild mannered North Englander, the timbre of his voice flattened and peppered with the over-enunciation of vowels common to his birthplace. With his shaved pate and toothy, child-like grin he couldn’t look less like a Hollywood player, but it didn’t stop him keeping records of the titles, stars and directors of movies he watched.

As a young man he wrote a number of computer scripts containing his data, and on October 17, 1990 (the day he watched 1981’s Body Heat on VHS, as he still remembers) the then 23-year published them to the newsnet group rec.arts.movies.

A little way off in continental Europe, computer scientist and physicist Tim Berners Lee was only just finalising the work that would become his pet project to embed links between separate computer files, so there was no such thing as a website. If you wanted to be one of the original IMDb users you had to download and install the scripts to run on your own computer.

Needham recruited people he knew through the newsgroup to create and manage data for the project while he toiled away as a technology researcher at Hewlett Packard, and the IMDb grew. And grew. And grew. “In 1995, the web went mainstream,” he says. “It’s tiny compared to what it is now of course, but in 1995 everybody was getting online. Our traffic was doubling every two weeks on a compounding basis. Then one day I came home and my wife said a reporter from The New York Times had called. I rang this reporter back and he was telling me everybody in the film industry was using the site so he wanted to find out more about it.”

With an exploding user base, Needham and his 20 or so colleagues around the world realised they’d have to turn it into a business if they wanted to really get serious. He says the whole team ‘agonised for months’ before taking the plunge, and when they finally did, getting together in a lawyer’s office to sign the incorporation papers and split up ownership of the shares was the first time many had met face to face.

By July the following year, the site had sold its first ad space (to 20th Century Fox for it’s midyear smash Independence Day). The rest, as the scholar said, is history. The IMDb not only kept growing at a crazy pace, it still is, with 150 million visitors per month and 2,349,185 TV episode and movie titles.

Where Needham once had one of his volunteers complete the second major database component – listings of cinematographers, writers and composers – today the IMDb lists more data about movies than you knew existed. There’s every conceivable member of the cast and crew, numbers corresponding to their popularity among users, genre, tagline, poster art and trailer listings, errors in the production, the ever-popular trivia, box office takings, news, recommendations, a quiz about the top ten movies and the Bacon numbers of 1,276,062 movie and TV personalities (if you don’t know what a Bacon number is you probably have no business being online – or interested in movies – at all).

A parallel, subscription-based site (IMDb Pro) includes budgets, industry news and contact or agency details for stars and crewmembers. But most importantly to shareholders the world over, there’s a link to buy the film from Amazon.com. In a frankly genius move in cross promotion, the online sales behemoth bought the IMDb in 1998. Who wouldn’t want a handful of the shares divvied up in that lawyers’ office right now?

Both IMDb and Amazon are extremely cagey about the relationship and its inner workings. It’s never been made public how much Amazon paid for the site in 1998 (not even leaked) nor how much Needham made out of the deal. Even questions about the number of editors who work on the content and what they do (the quality of some sections – such as the recommendations depending on your searched – is dubious at best) fall on deaf ears.

Still, if incorporating was the booster rocket stage for the IMDb, the 1998 Amazon purchase was the stage where the solid fuel tank was ejected and the site when stratospheric. “There were definitely benefits in being part of the Amazon family,” Needham says. “We were able to invest in technology, in design, in editorial, and it gave us a real lift. We’ve got great access to the resources we need to run and grow the business, but we have independence as well, so it’s definitely the best of both worlds. Becoming part of the Amazon Group was certainly the best business decision I ever made.”

After the Amazon acquisition, the IMDb has become an acquirer in turn. With Amazon’s backing it bought independent box office tracking website Box Office Mojo, and Needham also talked up Withoutabox.com, a service to connect filmmakers and festivals whom they hope will show their work. Both acquisitions were made in 2008, and the IMDb is looking to the future. Along with the rest of the Internet, everything seems to be going mobile, with Needham saying 40 percent of users accessed IMDB data from a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet.

And right there at the middle of one of the biggest clickstorms of the online world is the genial Mancunian. Like so many other technology visionaries, Needham’s fortunes came not from a grand plan to change the world but a happy confluence of interests. First and foremost, he describes himself merely as a movie lover.

“I was a huge cinema goer and I still am. Growing up in the 1970s I’d be dropped off at the local movie theatre on Saturday morning and they’d play two or three movies, usually some cartoons or shorts. That was my regular Saturday morning.”

But Needham was even more into technology. It made him one of the early adopters in the home PC era, leading to the then-tenuous connections to far-flung, like-minded people through bulletin boards and newsgroups. “Because I was interested in technology in those early days I was very big on science fiction, I’ve always had these two interests that were on kind of a collision course leading to the creation of IMDb,” he says.

Of course, the-once modest website is an online service behemoth all itself nowadays, so Needham must have fallen victim to Worker’s Pomp (the phenomenon where you get so successful at what you do you end up with a multinational company to run instead of doing what you used to love). Does he ever get time to just sit and tinker with computer code, and does he miss it? “I haven’t done any software development in quite a number of years now,” Needham says, “but that’s completely fine with me, it gives me time to see more movies.”

And how. Ask what his day job as founder and CEO is now and Needham’s list reads like every movie lover’s dream. Aside from the usual as a globetrotting CEO (strategic direction, management of the senior teams, being the public face of the company, giving presentations at industry events, etc), he routinely hits festivals and special screenings.

Hi favourites are Sundance, Toronto and Cannes, where he joins the throngs of insiders and media seeing four or five movies a day. “Most recently the British Film Institute put on a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, which was his last silent film. I attended a gala screening of the restored silent version at the British Museum, so I’m sitting there with a live orchestra watching the film at one of its locations. I’ll take that any day over seeing a VHS copy at home.”

As a true Hollywood insider, Needham must also have seen the kind of debauchery, outrageous behaviour, tantrums and bitchiness the rest of us can only read about in the tabloids. Sadly, he reveals nothing – maybe he’s saving his anecdotes for a salacious tell-all book because all he says when asked is a surprised-sounding ‘I don’t even know how to answer that question’.

Instead of watching starlets drape themselves across sports cars in the Hollywood Hills or leading men arrive at parties by helicopter with a retinue of beauties on their arms, Needham lights up when talking about just one thing – watching films. “I can get a little bit grumpy if I go for more than a day without seeing a movie,” he says (his peak movie viewing year was 1990, the year he first programmed the IMDb, in which he watched 1,100).

But perhaps the strongest endorsement about the IMDb comes not from Amazon’s tens of millions or the tens of millions of users, but sheer longevity. As anyone who’s ever bought a piece of technology knows, even a year can feel like a lifetime. Being 10 years old makes you a veteran in Internet terms, so after clocking up 22 birthdays and with no sign of slowing down yet, the IMDb stands in a class of its own.


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